Years from now when I think of music and the Winter of 2011-12 I suspect I’ll think first of Lana Del Rey. I do like these moments where there is something new on the scene and every music writer wants to weigh in, and the LDR phenom was the most interesting of these in recent memory. I wrote about her a little bit, esp. w/ a column from last November about the idea of “music-making as re-blog,” but I haven’t said much about her music mostly because I never found it very interesting. For me, from the first listen on, “Video Games” was dull, though plenty of people with whom I love talking about music loved it. So I had to acknowledge that there was something there that resonated with people, even if I could never fathom it.
In the last four or five months, though, I’ve listened a ton to “Radio” and I can safely say it’s one of my favorite songs of the year. It’s just fantastically constructed pop, and the gulf between the insanely catchy chorus and the perfunctory verses is so perfectly bridged by that little turnaround. I mention the gulf b/c the so-so verses really make the glittering chorus seem even more brilliant in comparison; every time it ends I just can’t wait for the other one. I want to hear it as loud as possible every time it pops up on shuffle.
Indulge me a sec for a quarter-baked and possibly contradictory ramble. I’m not sure I know what I’m talking about exactly but maybe I’ll figure it out through typing.
When the discourse around LDR was heating up just prior to the release of Born to Die, I was most interested in the fact that she was the ultimate cipher, a blank screen for people to project their desires. I kept coming back to Peter Sellars as Chauncey Gardner in Being There, the way people seemed to be straining to find meaning in what she was doing, when it seemed so clear to me that there was none (at least nothing immutable).
But I think I was pretty far off in that regard. After living with her music for a while longer and reading/watching a bunch of interviews with her, it’s clear to me that she’s an utterly unique figure in the popular music landscape. I don’t think her music is ultimately very good; in fact, it’s often laughable. And I certainly don’t think it’s important. But I do think it’s coming from a distinctive place. There’s another word for what happens when “unique” and “distinctive” are also unsettling and I think it fits her to a T: Lana Del Rey, from what we know of her through her public persona, is very strange.
As has been said a million times, LDR loves David Lynch. But she’s the rare Lynch obsessive who fantasizes about his world not from an auteur’s perspective—“How amazing would it be to create a world from your darkest dreams?”—but from the perspective of his most vulnerable characters, often the ones that have brought him the most criticism, especially from feminists. I’m thinking of Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet. We see the movie through the eyes of Kyle MacLachlan’s Jeffrey Beaumont. And he sees that Dorothy is a woman in trouble who is being held against her will so he gets to play the noble heroic figure trying to extricate her from this situation. But then he has a series of sexual encounters with her during which she asks him to hit her and he’s horrified by her request but ultimately gives in and starts to enjoy it (I haven’t seen Blue Velvet in a long time so forgive me if I’m remembering this wrong). Her music is often about power but her characters don’t have it and they don’t really seem to mind, either. It’s weird.
I wrote about this a little bit in an earlier post about Nice Guy Syndrome, but I think it’s pretty key to understanding the critical polarization when it comes to LDR. If I’m using the word correctly, hers is some of the most thoroughly gendered music going, and responses to it, whether pro or con, are informed by this fact. She is putting some ugly ideas out there and dressing them up in a pretty package and the POV is never really clear. And I strongly suspect that she has no greater understanding of POV than we do.
My take, after boiling it all down and letting it simmer for a half-year is that she’s neither a puppet of her industry handlers nor is she an artist of particular depth or self-awareness. Instead, she’s someone who has, through a combination of her physical attractiveness and the fact that she lives in a world of big money, been able to secure a position where she’s able to broadcast her obsessions. They are media-soaked obsessions, where ideas have been filtered through movies (another thing she has in common with Chauncey Gardner, I guess). And as obsessions go, they’re often pretty gross (could that be true for all of us?). Everything she craves seems to be surface level: money, fame, sex with bad boys who don’t care about her. She’s not offering commentary on these things, like, at all. In no way is she saying that wanting to be famous is an empty ambition. “Baby love me ‘cause I’m playing on the radio.” That is not said with irony. But, oddly, it’s not exactly said with satisfaction, either. It’s not a song about desire, it’s desire itself. And she leaves the commentary to us.